While attacks by and inspired by ISIS continued throughout the world in 2017, a noted terrorism expert said this year has been a real “wakeup call” about the dangers of right-wing extremism -- a threat he says Canadians have been all too complacent about.
A shooting at a mosque outside Quebec City on Jan. 29 killed six people and injured 19, making it the second-most deadly right-wing act of terrorism behind the Air India bombing in 1985.
“It was a watershed event in how it represents the infiltration of radical right-wing ideas in a violent form as we’ve also seen in the U.S. and Europe,” said James Ellis, project lead at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.
“It was a crystallization of Islamophobia in Quebec and beyond,” he told CTVNews.ca in an interview, adding that there have been growing concerns about a rise in hate crimes directed towards Muslims in Quebec and a general undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Civil liberties advocates have challenged the constitutionality of Quebec's ban on face coverings -- which was temporarily struck down on Dec. 1 -- and decried the July vote of a small town outside Quebec City that prohibited a Muslim cemetery.
Canada far from isolated
Ellis, who was previously the manager for the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism – a non-profit funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security – said the threat of right-wing violent extremism has been largely ignored in Canada.
“The patterns we are seeing throughout the U.S. know no border. Canada can’t continue this idea that terrorism is a secondary concern or that our intelligence apparatus is suitable,” he said.
Canada is largely seen domestically and internationally as welcoming, peaceful, and multicultural, said Ellis, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a dark side like that fuelling racist and anti-immigration violence south of the border.
“We couldn’t have more stark warnings in the U.S. this year that right-wing extremism is growing into a bigger problem. To think Canada is isolated is foolhardy as is thinking any one ideology has a monopoly on terror.”
Public Safety Canada has been warning about the threat of far-right violence for five years, but it didn’t resonate until this year, said Dr. Lorne Dawson, a professor at the University of Waterloo.
In June, a woman allegedly brandished a golf club and knife in a Canadian Tire in Toronto and is facing multiple terror-related charges. She will be tried next year on a total of 21 charges, including attempted murder of at least three people for the benefit of or in association with a terrorist group.
And in late September in Edmonton, a man was accused of running down and stabbing a police officer and deliberately plowing a van into pedestrians. Five people were injured.
“That was a more co-ordinated ISIS-inspired event, a multi-stage attack with an intention for a larger body count,” said Ellis. “There was a wanton disregard for human life.”
The attacks in Canada were part of a stark increase in low-tech, lone-wolf attacks in England, Germany, and Sweden that came in the wake of the military defeat of ISIS.
“This is a new concern but everyone had been waiting and anticipating a terrorism shift from the classic, multi-member plots with multiple targets, such as bombings to low tech attacks with cars or knives, “ Dawson told CTVNews.ca. “They are almost impossible to predict or stop.”
In almost every case, he said, authorities were aware of the perpetrators but considered them to be low-level threats.
Dawson, who is co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, said Canadians are more aware of terrorism threats and no longer believe it is a problem only for faraway places or that being Canadian affords protection abroad.
“I’m seeing more people believing it is a Canadian issue. There is increasing appreciation of the threat. There has been a slow and steady change in attitude.”
But he said while Canadians think of terrorism in places like Afghanistan and Syria, they aren’t aware of dangerous domestic terrorism in Africa, Philippines and Indonesia.
Ellis, meanwhile, has maintained a database tracking global terrorist attacks since 1960, in which Canadians were perpetrators or victims. But funding ran out in 2016 and Ellis doesn’t have numbers for 2017.
“But in general terms, there is nothing to indicate that Canadians are any safer at home or abroad than they were last year,” said Ellis. “There is nothing to indicate that the fundamental forces driving terrorism are in any way diminished.”
The Canadian government has set the threat level of a terrorist act occurring in Canada at medium, its level since October 2014.
The United Kingdom tells its travellers: “Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Canada. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. You should monitor media reports and remain vigilant.”
In terms of travel by Canadians, Ottawa issues advisories based on assessing a range of factors, including crime, terrorism, civil unrest, war, rebellion, natural disaster, political instability, and health emergencies.
Ottawa warns against any travel to 13 countries, specifically citing terrorism in: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, Chad and Niger.
It cautions against non-essential travel to another 15 nations, citing terrorism in: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Mauritania and Eritrea.
Canada urges a high degree of caution for travellers to a further 100 countries, which includes France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom due to elevated threats of terrorism, along with Morocco, India, Indonesia, and Turkey. Philippines was added to the list this year.
The United States issued an alert Nov. 16 about "the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, particularly during the holiday season. U.S. citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals and events." The alert expires Jan. 31, 2018.
Also this year, the U.S. issued new or recurring travel warnings due to terrorism for: Syria, Niger, Sudan, Mauritania, Cameroon, Turkey, Kenya, Bangladesh, Somalia, Jordan, Egypt, Philippines, Mali, Algeria, Iraq, Burkina Faso, Chad, Pakistan, Yemen, Tunisia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Libya.